France's World Cup 2014 qualification hopes took a severe hit on Tuesday when they were beaten by Group I rivals Spain, 1-0, in Paris.
The result meant that Spain leapfrogged France to the top of the group by a single point with only three matches left to play. Having already held Spain to a draw in the reverse fixture, and seen Finland do the same last week, France would have been extremely hopeful of preventing the reigning World champions from winning this most recent encounter, thereby leaving automatic qualification for the finals in Brazil in their own hands.
Pedro and co., as it turned out, had other ideas.
Despite the set-back, France could still qualify as group winners should Spain slip up again in their final three matches, but at worst, they look a sure-bet to make the playoff phase as runners up. Trips to Belarus and Georgia look awkward, if not downright dangerous, before France wrap up their qualifying campaign with a home fixture against winless Finland.
One way or another, we would expect to see France as one of the 32 nations in Brazil next year. But are they realistically going there to challenge?
They remain one of the better nations of their day, true, but there is also little to compare this present France team to the successful 1998 side. There are several areas of improvement that Didier Deschamps and his side might still make before the finals, though, to make themselves more capable of challenging for ultimate glory.
Settled centre-back partnership
Laurent Koscielny and Raphael Varane was the chosen centre-back combination for France against Spain, and while they performed well for the most part, neither are particularly vociferous and domineering.
Having said that, the progress of Varane this season has been impressive, and there is every chance he could be heading into the World Cup next summer having been a first choice defender for Real Madrid over the past 18 months, no small matter for consideration.
Alongside him, should Koscielny be the partner? Mamadou Sakho would seem a likely candidate, but would almost certainly have to depart PSG this summer to maintain a regular spot.
The entire defensive squad for France, with the exception of Patrice Evra, have less than 20 caps at present, so Deschamps and his team would certainly benefit from picking a duo who he feels should be the best fit, and sticking with them. Continuity and comfort is important at international level where the players will get little chance to gel pre-tournament.
Karim Benzema was replaced near the end of the Spain match and was roundly booed off by his own fans, unhappy with the Madrid striker having gone more than 1,000 minutes of international football without a goal for his nation (via Telegraph).
Benzema himself reacted by saying:
I will not say that I don't care. But if there are people whose only occupation is booing, it is their problem. There are periods like this. This one is long but I will continue to work to score. I hope it will come soon.
He has now gone since June 2012 without scoring for France, and has a total of just 15 goals in well over 50 appearances for the national team.
Worryingly, he is also the top scorer at international level in the entire squad. Only Franck Ribery has joined him in double figures, in fact. The other attackers in the French squad this time around—Jeremy Menez, Loic Remy, Olivier Giroud, Bafetimbi Gomis, Dimitri Payet—have a total of 12 goals between them at full international level.
Whether the goals come from Benzema eventually, or whether the likes of Moussa Sissoko or Yohan Cabaye can provide a more regular source of strikes from advanced midfield positions, or even if a spritely young striker can break into the team and provide a goal threat—M'Baye Niang, or Alexandre Lacazette, perhaps—Deschamps needs to find a formula for making France more dangerous in the final third.
They cannot rely on winning by the odd goal for an entire major tournament and hoping that the opposition do not possess the quality to score once or twice themselves.
The team spirit
France, at several of the past major tournaments, have been a severe let-down.
At the 2010 World Cup, their most memorable contribution to the competition was to refuse to train and walk out on their coach, Raymond Domenech, after striker Nicolas Anelka was expelled from the team for arguing with him.
It used to be that the Dutch national team was associated with fallings-out and intra-squad issues, now it appears that France have taken on that particular mantle.
Deschamps needs to pick not only a squad of 23 who have the technical and tactical ability to challenge for the World Cup, but also one which has the mental resilience and respect for the nation, the shirt and the coaches to perform and behave as is expected of them.
They have not managed to do that in the last few tournaments, and even if they rectify all of their on-pitch problems, not resolving this mentality issue could easily be the downfall of them once again in Brazil next year.
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